Nick Coleman: Paulose's contempt for fairness brought disgrace to her office

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2007 - 7:49 PM

The failed experiment that was the term of Rachel Paulose as Minnesota's top law enforcement officer has ended: In January, Paulose will step down after months of turmoil as U.S. attorney and fade into the Washington bureaucracy.

The damage done by her appointment -- which was part of an orchestrated White House attempt to make the office of U.S. attorney into a cudgel for the Bush Administration -- cannot be overestimated. But it must be repaired.

Paulose was a nightmare as an administrator who interfered in subordinates' decisions and seemed to apply a political template prepared by now-departed Bush apparatchiks like former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Monica Goodling, the Paulose pal who wouldn't testify to Congress until she was given immunity from prosecution.

But don't fall for the lie that Paulose was forced out by liberals who are soft on porn and prostitution.

(That lunatic argument is being peddled by some Paulose supporters, demonstrating just how politically charged her appointment was.)

No, she was undone by incompetence, a partisan agenda and -- most important -- by the concerns of professional, nonpartisan prosecutors who believe the U.S. attorney's office belongs to the people, not to one political party.

One of them is Doug Kelley, a longtime Republican and attorney in private practice who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Minnesota office and still has ties to some of the office's staff whose resistance ended Paulose's rule.

"Justice is supposed to be blind," Kelley said Tuesday. "That's why Lady Justice wears a blindfold. But the credibility of the office -- the trust in blind justice -- has been undermined. Rachel's priorities were the priorities of Alberto Gonzalez and crew, as opposed to the priorities that fit Minnesota."

Kelley, the chief of staff to former Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger, served as assistant U.S. attorney from 1978 to 1985 (he was hired by a Democrat). He says Paulose's stint, while brief, was driven by a political agenda at odds with the nonpartisan traditions of the Minnesota office, which has been widely trusted whether headed by Republicans or Democrats.

Paulose was "obviously partisan in her goals and direction," Kelley said, and her tenure caused "the loss of many senior, valuable people."The thorough professionals who work in that office were thwarted in their jobs by her political agenda and her managerial style," he said. "That's a sad commentary on her legacy."

Hit list beneficiary

Paulose's friend Goodling was involved in drawing up the infamous 2006 hit list of attorneys who were not "loyal" enough to the strategy of politicizing the nation's prosecutorial offices. Goodling also was involved in picking the replacement for U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger, Paulose's predecessor, who -- as I wrote April 1 -- turned out to have been on the first hit list, although his name was redacted after he resigned. (Anyone who counted the names on the first list and subtracted the names of the resigned could tell Heffelfinger's name had been there. It was.)

Heffelfinger, a mainstream Republican, resigned before he could be fired (he said he didn't know he had been targeted, but his resignation came a year earlier than planned and avoided a public goring). Paulose was picked to replace Heffelfinger after Assistant U.S. Attorney Joan Humes -- whom Heffelfinger had recommended -- was given a Goodling grilling about her political beliefs. (Humes, since departed, was a Democrat.)

All of this has affected the credibility of the most powerful law enforcement office in the state. And the situation was made more intolerable when conservative bloggers published Paulose's claim that she was being attacked by an anti-religious cabal of racists, sexists and ageists. Some of her supporters even claimed that Paulose's critics were soft on porn and prostitution because Paulose had aggressively prosecuted human trafficking cases -- after she had become embroiled in controversy and her top assistants had resigned to protest her leadership.

A porn crackdown is always a good diversion when you're in trouble, but this kind of game is exactly what you get from politicized prosecutors: sensational easy targets while the more difficult work of prosecuting white-collar crime and corruption -- insider trading, mortgage fraud, price-fixing -- is neglected.

Sometimes, justice isn't just blind. It's darn funny.

In the end, the absurd assault on the motives of her critics -- especially those within the Department of Justice -- finally dislodged Paulose. Another staff revolt seemed imminent, one that would have made last April's uprising seem small. Paulose's political supporters and patrons did her in. By proving the case against her.

"This is really a sad story," says Kelley. "Yes, everyone is happy that Rachel Paulose is leaving. But it's a sad chapter in the history of this office."

Nick Coleman •

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